Travel Industry's 1-2 Punch: Recession, Swine Flu
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Federal officials are doing what they can to keep the travel industry from suffering another blow. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is encouraging people not to worry too much about swine flu.
Secretary RAY LAHOOD (U.S. Department of Transportation): It is safe to fly. There is no reason to cancel flights.
INSKEEP: Easy advice to give, but travel agents around the country say their clients aren't following it. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.
YUKI NOGUCHI: Duluth Travel president Arthur Salus sums up business this way.
Mr. ARTHUR SALUS (President, Duluth Travel): Mexico's on sale.
NOGUCHI: As in roundtrip tickets from New York to Mexico costs $150. Hotels are offering free flights for a four-night stay. Yet, all the calls he's getting are to cancel flights, not book deals.
Mr. SALUS: They say at the airports, though, everybody's wearing masks, you know? And that scares people. You know, that kind of freaks people out.
NOGUCHI: Among the sober but somewhat freaked out, Salus and his employees, who geared up for their industry conference in Jamaica.
Mr. SALUS: Well, I got a mask. I bought 42 masks for my members - for my staff over here.
NOGUCHI: Travel agents have more than one reason to freak out. They don't earn commissions until travelers actually take their trips. And perhaps the bigger loss is that people are avoiding travel altogether at the start of the summer vacation season. In a word - that's bad.
Bad enough that Lufthansa, the German airliner, announced last week it would employ a doctor aboard every flight to Mexico. Bad enough that about 70 percent of travel agent Blake Fleetwood's customers are canceling their trips to Mexico. And some of his European and Asian clients have even canceled long-standing trips to the U.S. because of reports of flu here.
Mr. BLAKE FLEETWOOD (Owner, Cook/American Express Travel Agency): I was shocked when one of my agents told me that people didn't want to come to New York. I think I'm in a very safe place.
NOGUCHI: With demand collapsing, Fleetwood said his agency got desperate e-mails from airlines.
Mr. FLEETWOOD: I got an e-mail from Air Canada saying $88 to go to Mexico. I mean, that's just, you know, you can barely take a taxi in New York for that.
NOGUCHI: Even those who are choosing to brave the viral elements in Mexico, like Monica Carrington(ph), face the wrath of those around them at home.
Ms. MONICA CARRINGTON: My children are quite spastic. My job, well, actually they told me it was rather selfish of me to go, because I would come back and infect everyone. I told my children that I'm going.
NOGUCHI: Going to spend her vacation next week as planned along the Mayan Riviera. Carrington pointed out that there are no reports of swine flu there, whereas in her home state of Ohio the virus has spread. And this is her defense.
Ms. CARRINGTON: I could catch something at my grocery store now there. And, you know, the talk of closing borders is ludicrous, because it's already here.
NOGUCHI: But few are as confident as Carrington. And Fleetwood, who owns the Cook/American Express Travel Agency, says the economy and the flu outbreak are taking their toll. He said he'll have to close one of his five offices and furlough some employees.
Mr. FLEETWOOD: There are thousands of travel agents who are just not doing anything right now, probably akin to real estate agents who haven't seen any income for a long while.
NOGUCHI: Faced with all the pressures, Fleetwood could, ironically, use a vacation right now, but his business needs his attention, he says, so his plan, too, is to stay at home.
How does this make you feel as a travel agent?
Mr. FLEETWOOD: I wish I was doing something different. I used to be a journalist like you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
But journalism isn't doing too well now either. So…
NOGUCHI: Proving once again it's not only hard to take a vacation, it's hard to take refuge from the economy as well.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
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